The path to success in Fantasy Fishing

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — With Kevin VanDam and Aaron Martens sharing half the Fantasy ownership in Bucket A, and Randall Tharp and Brandon Palaniuk splitting 60-some percent in Bucket C, your buckets B and D picks could be more likely to help you win this year’s Bassmaster Fantasy Fishing contest for the 2014 GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by Diet Mountain Dew and GoPro.

I researched each competitor’s February history on both Guntersville and comparable riverine reservoirs (Red River, Lay Lake and Wheeler Lake) and reviewed February Guntersville tournament results — best baits, cover and structure — at I also interviewed several competitors — including three mentioned here — for my Fantasy Fishing Insider podcast (listen here, below, or on iTunes.) Following are the best bets in each bucket, based on the data.

Bucket A: VanDam, Martens or Iaconelli

I think this Classic will be won by ripping a lipless crankbait over submerged grass, pretty much how Kevin VanDam (who has 30% ownership in Fantasy Fishing’s Bucket A as of Feb. 2) won the 2010 Bassmaster Classic on Lay Lake. So, picking against him is a hard sell, despite a 74th-place Guntersville flop in February 2005.

VanDam placed third here in February 2004 and won or finished in the Top 15 in three Classics on comparable reservoirs — first and third on Lay Lake and 11th on the Red River. His non-February finishes here include a win, fourth, 20th and ninth.

Still considering someone other than KVD? If you insist …

The defending Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year, Martens (27%) is a California native who moved a few years ago to Leeds, Ala., which is about an hour and a half from Guntersville, where he’s won once in eight tournaments.

In February tournaments here, he’s placed 14th twice. In four of five February tournaments on comparable reservoirs, he was impressive too, with Top 12 finishes on Wheeler Lake, Lay Lake and the Red River.

Statistics indicate Mike Iaconelli (5%) is the best-of the-rest pick in Bucket A. In two February tournaments here, he placed fifth and 19th. In two of four spring events here, he won one and placed fourth in another. In February Classics on comparable riverine reservoirs, he finished in the Top 10 twice.

Bucket B: DeFoe, Vinson or Walker

Ott DeFoe’s (20%) best finish here in four tournaments — 18th place — came in February. A fifth-place Classic finish in February on the Red River makes him worth considering.

Alabamian Greg Vinson (10%) might live 2 1/2 hours from Guntersville, but his history in five tournaments here is uneven, bookended by a runner-up and a 155th-place bomb. His only February finish here was a Top 20. Add a Classic runner-up finish on Red River in February 2012, and Vinson looks like the home-state angler to go with in Bucket B.

As much as I admire Alabamian Randy Howell, his February history on Guntersville is not nearly as sharp as his haircut – 129th and 47th. And his average finish here in six other tournaments is 56th.

If David Walker (5%) didn’t jump out at you as the top pick in Bucket B, you’re probably not alone. He’s not a former Classic winner, like Alton Jones and Mark Davis. He’s not a former Angler of the Year, like Brent Chapman and, again, Davis. He’s not Bass Fishing’s Most Interesting Man, like Tommy Biffle. And heck, he’s not even from Alabama, like Randy Howell.

But data indicate Walker’s the best pick. He finished sixth and ninth here in two February tournaments, and fourth and 13th on two comparable riverine reservoirs in a similar time period. He also placed fourth here in a summer tournament.

Bucket C: Tharp, Palaniuk or Omori

In several ways, Tharp (32%) is the “Jason Christie” of this year’s Classic — an FLW-crossover fishing on essentially his home lake. In one important way, however, he’s not: This ain’t his first rodeo. He competed in the 2011 Classic on the Louisiana Delta, finishing 35th.

Tharp is a favorite to win. He’s won three tournaments here, including a Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Open presented by Allstate, and notched two Top 10s in late-February FLW BFLs. Last year, he won the FLW’s season-champion tournament, the Forrest Wood Cup. So, yeah, he’s a Prime Time gamer.

Palaniuk (33%) is again a popular Fantasy Fishing pick, perhaps because he appears to fish best when the stakes are the highest. In his three consecutive Classic appearances, Palaniuk finished fourth, 48th and second.

But Palaniuk has never competed on Guntersville. Nor has he competed on any comparable reservoirs in February. This makes for an intriguing Tharp vs. Palaniuk match-up. Will experience pay off better than seeing the lake with fresh eyes?

Think neither Tharp nor Palaniuk will overcome the hype? Pick Takahiro Omori (2%), who finished 27th in his one February tournament here. His best finish in six tournaments here is sixth. His February Classic history on comparable riverine reservoirs includes two Top 15s.

Bucket D: Lee or Miyazaki

Should you pick a veteran with Classic and Guntersville experience, or a youngster with no Classic experience but lots of lower-tier success here (both in general and in February)? Your answer will likely determine your Fantasy Fishing fate.

Jordan Lee (41%), Carhartt Bassmaster College Series champion, has placed sixth and ninth in two February tournaments here, and he won an early March tournament here last year. He can catch coldwater bass. But is he better than Classic veterans who have faced tougher competition here? It will be fun to find out.

Data indicate the best veteran pick is Yusuke Miyazaki (4%), who placed 18th on Guntersville in February 2005. While he bombed here (97th) in February 2004, he notched Top 15 finishes in two April tournaments (2006 and 2007). He fished his first Classic last year, so he’s less likely to be negatively affected this year by the hype and extra schedule demands.

Bucket E: Carden

So few of these guys have any history on Guntersville or a comparable riverine reservoir — in February or otherwise. So play it safe and take Alabamian Coby Carden (64%), who placed 32nd here in a February 2004 Bassmaster tournament. He placed fourth in an early March tournament on Lay Lake, and he’s also won a Southern Open.

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